Namasudra History Congress

From Chandals to Namasudras

A K Biswas

Bengal furnished a standing proof of what havoc social discrimination, injustice and inequality, resulting in dehumanization of a populous community wrought. A homeland for Bengali Muslims in 1947 was, in consequence, created, a fact mainstream historians and litterateur are shy to acknowledge. In 1901 census authorities reported that descendants of Namasudra and Pod, both untouchable castes, who embraced Islam, aggregated at nine millions of 10.5 million Muslims of Dhaka and Chittagong Divisions. In 1872, Bengal was a Hindu majority province with 1,81,00,400 persons as against 1,76,09,130 Muslims. A decade later the Muslims outnumbered the Hindus. In 1901 Bengali Hindus aggregating at 2,22,12,069 persons lagged behind Muslims by 55,98,000 persons. In 1941, the Hindus numbered 250,57,000 and Muslims 330,05,400 souls, who became majority by 79,48,400 persons[1].

Between 1901 and 1941, the Muslims increased at 13.2% whereas Hindus by 24.3%. At this rate the descendants of converts of Namasudra and Pod contributed during the period 12 lakh to Muslim population. Their contribution to Bengali Muslims totalled 90,00,000+12,00.000=1,02,00,000. Bereft of 1.02 crore there was no Muslim majority and they would decline to 2,28,05,400 and Hindus surge to 3,52,57,000-leaving an unbridgeable gap of 1,24,51,600 persons! Grossest dehumanization and discrimination of the untouchables invited the partition of Bengal in 1947 for which Hindus must blame themselves though they targeted British divide and rule, intransigence of Jinnah etc. These factors were just incidental to the plot. Without demographic majority, no logic of partition and demand for Pakistan had leg to stand. The Muslims must be grateful to unmerciful Hindu arrogance and unbridled orthodoxy that drove Namasudras and Pods for cover and dignity under Islam.

L R Faucus, ICS and settlement officer, Khulna recorded that as the deltaic area which is now Khulna district rose out of the sea, the first persons to penetrate its swampy forests were undoubtedly the pre-Aryan hunters and fishers who alone could find a livelihood to their tastes in its jungles and rivers. These tribes are now represented by the Pods and Namasudras who form the bulk of the non-Mahomedan population of the district. The term Namasudra is an euphemism for the detested Chandals who were held in lowest estimation of all the aboriginal tribes of Bengal by the invading Aryans[2]. In 1911, John Edward Webesters, ICS, stated that youngest among all the districts in the Ganges delta, Noakhali had no ancient history. It is probably not more than 3,000 years since first it became fit for human habitation, but there are no records to tell who and what manner of men they were who first settled in it and reclaimed the jungles. Possibly they were the progenitors of the present Namasudras or Chandals, who according to Mr O'Donnel entered Bengal from the north-east before the Koches; or they may be represented by the Jugis."[3]

These are some of the highlights of the keynote address delivered by Dr Atulkrishna Biswas, a retired IAS and former Vice-Chancellor, B R Amhedkar Bihar University, Muzaffarpur of the first ever Namasudra History Congress, February 18-19, 2017 held at Calcutta. Since these find no place in mainstream history or academic discourses, the Namasudra Intellectuals and Activists Forum organized the symposium which might be considered as a novel event for academic and cultural calendar of the Bengalees.

The Chandals who in 1911 were officially re-designated as Namasudras observed a 'general strike' in 1872-73 in protest against their caste men, when in jails as prisoners, being exclusively compelled to perform conservancy services while prisoners of other castes and Muslims were exempted. The strike lasted for over at least four months, exerting ruinous repercussions on the life of 5.5 million people of Faridpur, Backarganj and Jessore, now in Bangladesh. The Superintendent of police after an inquiry reported on 18th March 1873 to District Magistrate, Faridpur which was the theatre of the strike that "...Chandals are not only agriculturists, but they are also boatmen, porters, carpenters, potters, and fishermen; on them devolve all the occupation and trades practiced by other castes in more settled tracts"[4] Unfailingly the strike by such a community brought life of the-rural economy to standstill. The Magistrate too conducted an inquiry and found its repercussion "ruinous".

The Lieutenant Governor Sir George Campbell had passed order that "...the Chandals in jail should not in future be forced to do the work of sweepers, but that any of them who choose to do it when its comparatively easy nature is pointed out, may be allowed so to work."[5] Unfortunately, the order, for mysterious reason(s), remained unimplemented. This remains as an illustration of standing shame for failure of the colonial bureaucracy to implement orders of His Excellency the Lieutenant Governor of the Lower Provinces of Bengal. After 35 years, Bengal Provincial Congress at Pabna in 1908, passed a resolution calling for end of the discriminatory practice of engagement of Chandals as sweepers in jails.

The strikers were pioneers of a non-violent, peaceful and non-cooperation movement. Historians are by and large, unaware and much less ready to acknowledge and document that Dwarika Nath Mandal, Rai Chand Mandal, Nilmoni Biswas, Sibu Dhali, Ram Chandra Bugsha and Bhajon Bala were the illiterate and faceless Chandal villagers who ignited an epoch-making phenomenon decades later India applied as tool against the British in freedom struggle. Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi was then just about 4 years old. "Boycott" entered English vocabulary 7 years later. Leo Tolstoy enunciated his spiritual philosophy of nonviolence and peace in The Kingdom of God is within You (1894). The Commissioner, Dhaka Division justifiably described the strike as "a novel state of affairs" as it was indeed pathbreaking, unique and unprecedented phenomenon. Indian history is blind to this event.

Guru Chand Thakur, a Namasudra patriarch, social reformer and religious leader of Faridpur stood firmly against anti-partition of Bengal and swadeshi movement in 1905. Sir Surendra Nath Banerjea wrote a letter to the Namasudra leader, urging him to join the swadeshi movement with his lakhs of followers, known as Matuas. But Guru Chand Thakur turned down his request with an interjection that the upper castes were consumers of luxurious goods imported from abroad and hence the movement should remain confined within them. Deprived of their political right, he wrote back, the Namasudras were victims of oppression and discrimination in their own homeland. So the upper castes his letter further disclosed, would do well to learn a lesson how to fraternize with the untouchable and depressed classes; otherwise they would never participate in swadeshi movement.[6]

A number of memoranda was submitted by All-Bengal Namasudra Association and All-Bengal Depressed Classes Association. A joint delegation of these two Associations gave oral evidence to Simon Commission in 1929 at Calcutta and ventilated their grievances under leadership of Mukunda Behary Mallick, a Namasudra. The memorandum of the Namasudras stated that "....the literacy of the Brahmans is 48% and that of the Vaidyas 65% and that of the Kayasthas 41%. It is a matter of history that for reasons known to them, these communities have practically shut the doors of schools against the members of the depressed classes during the pre-British rule in India."[7] According to All-Bengal Depressed Classes Association "denial of admission in Medical College and Hospital, Calcutta for treatment" of untouchable patients was a reality in Bengal.[8]

Subhas Chandra Bose held black flag demonstration shouting "Go back Simon" in Calcutta. Their memoranda read like chargesheets against the minuscule upper castes against vast majority of their own country.

Namasudra memorandum demanded that "appointments should be made from amongst the qualified candidates of different communities in proportion to their numerical strength. At the first instance, candidates of the Depressed Classes and others, including Mahomedans, should only be appointed until and unless equalization of these classes is secured to those who have already filled these services. For next ten years, these appointments be made from amongst the Depressed Classes to obtain an equalization of their number to those of others who have hitherto filled all these offices". This carried tons of sociopolitical significance and if adopted as policy and implemented honestly, the catastrophe of partition of Bengal was averted. Their further demand was that "For next ten years, these appointments be made from amongst the Depressed Classes to obtain an equalization of their number to those of others who have hitherto filled all these offices". The deputationists also believed that the term "efficiency and competence are absolutely misnomer and have absolutely no scope in public service". Protagonists of efficiency and competence actually divided the country on this plank.

Another significant demand was that "The Courts and judiciary should be so constituted by legislation that there may be representatives of different communities on these in order that the people may have confidence in the administration of justice".[9]

The election to Constituent Assembly in 1946 posed a serious problem against Dr B R Amhedkar. The Indian National Congress waged a full-scale war against him. The largest and oldest party's attitude was articulated by Sardar Ballabhbhai Patel who declared unequivocally that "apart from the doors, even the windows of the Constituent Assembly Are closed for Dr Ambedkar. Let us see how he enters into the Constituent Assembly". The Namasudras of Bengal accepted the challenge to ensure election of Dr Ambendkar to the august House from Bengal. Jogendra Nath Mandal, a Namasudra MLA invited him to contest election from Jessore-Khulna Constituency, now in Bangladesh. Four Namasudra MLAs, two Rajbanshi MLAs and one tribal MLA of Bengal voted for him. He won with largest number of votes. The nation would not have got Ambedkar had the Namasudra leader not taken the cudgel against the Congress party.[10]

Delegates from Bangladesh attended the Congress. Mantu Kumar Mandal, an advocate of Supreme Court, Dhaka, Bangladesh stated that Namasudras actually are about 90%-94% of the minority. Discrimination and other evils of caste still plagues them. Namasudras form the largest element of Hindu minorities and have made good progress in education and other fields there. Economically they are better off now. But a sense of insecurity, however, haunts them over the thought of change of policy and attitude towards them with changes of government.

References :
1.    Report on the Census of Bengal 1872, pp. xxxii-xxxiii; Census of India 1901, vol. VI, p. 396; Census of India 1931, vol. V. Report Part I, p. 387; V B Kulkarni, Is Pakistan Necessary? Hind Kitabs, Bombay, 1944, P- 67.
2.   Biswas, A K, The Namasudras of Bengal, Profile of a Persecuted People, Blumoon Books, New Delhi. April 14, 2000, pp. 26-27 quoted from Final Report of The Khulna Settlement 1920-1926, by L R Faucus, ICS, Settlement Officer, Bengal Secretariat Press, Calcutta, para 58. According to Surveyor General, the Sundarbans covered 5570 sq miles in 1871 whereas Sundarban Commissioner estimated the area at 7532 sq miles in 1873.
3.   Websters, J E, ICS, Eastern Bengal & Assam District Gazetteers, Noakhali, The Pioneer Press, Allahabad, 1911. p 14.
4.   Letter no. 66 dated Bhanga, the 18th March 1873 from W L Owen, District Superintendent to the District Magistrate of Faridpur.
5.   Letter from A, Mackenzie, Junior Secretary to the Government of Bengal, to The Inspector General of Jails, Lower Provinces, bearing No. 523T, dated Darjeeling, the 7th June, 1873.
6.   Roy, N B, A People in Distress, Vol. I, B. Sarkar & Co., Calcutta, 1967, p. 75.
7.   A K Biswas, The Namasudras of Bengal, p 53.
8.   Ibid., p. 35.
9.   Ibid., p. 35.
10.           A K Biswas, A memorable chapter neglected in history : Ambedkar's Odyssey to the Constituent Assembly of India through Bengal, Mainstream. Vol LV, No. I, New Delhi, December 24, 2016 –Annual 2016.

Vol. 49, No.40, April 9 - 15, 2017